Do you have what it takes to be a brilliant CTO or VP R&D?

My quest for finding my next job got me thinking quite a lot about the CTO and VP R&D roles in startups. Which skills do you need in order to be good at your job? By which parameters would someone choose a candidate?

A lot has been written on the subject, but here is a short summary of my thoughts combined with those of fellow founders and colleagues.

First things first, the company stage matters

There is a difference between the needs of an early stage company and the needs of a post series A company. The former requires someone who is 100% hands-on while the latter emphasizes management and team building skills.

Early stage — CTO role

The technical lead position in an early stage startup is usually the CTO:

  • A hands-on, tech savvy person with proven track record of building products from the ground up.
  • Frequently the CTO is also a Co-Founder, but not necessarily. Either way, they should be an “A player” — pleasant to work with, passionate about what they do, and someone you can rely on.
  • Expertise in the product or technical domain is a big advantage. For example, companies building products in the cyber security/big data/machine learning/AI space will highly benefit from a CTO who is an expert in the field.
  • Comfortable with the uncomfortable. The road is filled with obstacles. The need to change and adapt might be frequent.
  • Able to manage a team of up to 8 people. A common scenario is for the CTO to grow with the team until they reach product-market fit, then bring in a VP R&D to manage engineering together as the team scales.

Post series A — VP R&D role

Managing a big engineering team requires a different skill set with an emphasis on soft skills:

  • Team building and empowerment. Recruiting people that are both good at what they do and fit the company culture is critical. This is not where team building ends, though. The VP R&D has to continue coaching team members and help them evolve as professionals and individuals.
  • Broad technological knowledge. I don’t believe the VP R&D absolutely has to be hands-on. Instead, their technical knowledge should be broad enough to allow them to ask the right questions and quickly learn what they need to know in order to lead the team.
  • Scaling the team. The VP R&D needs to know when it becomes necessary to add members to the team, while balancing it with the overall needs of the business. Scaling is hard. The VP R&D has to set the right processes so that the team remains focused, members do not step on each other’s toes or pull in completely different directions, important knowledge is dispersed, the right things get standardized, and average productivity increases.
  • Able to drive people forward. Motivated employees with a high sense of purpose are happier and more productive.
  • Likeable but assertive. Being someone who easily connects with others is important for another non-obvious reason. Frequently, the VP R&D joins when there is already an existing team in place, together with the conflicts, frustrations, and cliques that are part of the human experience. Good VP R&D can identify and navigate these to get things done while being someone whose leadership is accepted by the team.

Ali Behnam compared the VP R&D role to that of a conductor and I think it is quite accurate: “Maybe they don’t know how to play every instrument in the orchestra, but they know how it should sound, and when it’s out of key or out of tune”.

Final words

I phrased my thoughts above quite decisively. In the real world you would first analyze the company’s stage, challenges, and objectives before determining the skills that are needed to help it get to the next level.

Happy hunting!